As a case study in how to implement organizational change, Elon Musk’s actions go down as the gold standard of what not to do on Twitter.
Among other things, the evidence shows that successful organizational change requires: a clear, compelling vision that is communicated effectively; employee engagement; and fairness in the way the change is implemented. Trust in leaders is also critical.
Musk, the world’s richest man, is quick to turn Twitter into a moneymaker. But understanding the requirements for successful organizational change takes time. Two of the three efforts failed, resulting in high costs, a stressed workforce and the loss of key talent.
Change management never goes to plan. It’s hard to tell if Musk has a plan though.
Musk’s ‘ultra hardcore’ style
Since taking over Twitter on Oct. 27, Musk has stopped employees from working from home, canceled employee lunches, and laid off about 3,700 employees — about half of Twitter’s workforce. Many found out they were evicted when they couldn’t find their laptops.
Days later, it was revealed that Musk had a team of hackers who hacked employees’ private messages on Slack and fired them.
Then last week on Wednesday, Musk sent an ultimatum to employees to pledge to the new “super hardcore” Twitter pledge, which “means working long hours at high intensity.” Employees had until 5pm the next day to accept or take a severance package.
About 500 employees have reportedly written farewell messages.
Musk didn’t seem to expect this response. As the “Hardcore” deadline approached, he began bringing key employees to meetings, trying to convince them to stay.
He also pushed back on the work-from-home ban, telling employees in an email that “all that is required to be approved is for your manager to take responsibility for making sure you are contributing well.”
It had failed. Many employees took to Twitter on Friday to leave the office, wondering who had forced all employees out of the office until Monday.
Layoffs and restructuring are common in organizational change. But the way they are managed has a huge impact on who leaves and who stays. If you want employees to be committed and responsive to problems, telling them they are lazy and threatening them won’t help.
Choice is important.
But what about SpaceX and Tesla—the companies on which Musk built his fame and fortune? Doesn’t their success prove that they are good leaders?
Not very fast. There’s a big difference between a mission-driven company like SpaceX and a platform like Twitter.
When there is a common mission to accomplish something unusual or never done before, employees often volunteer under difficult circumstances.
They choose to go above and beyond and work long hours if they feel their work is important or aligned with the organization’s goals. But the key point here is that they choose.
As one Twitter employee tweeted after Musk’s “hardcore” email:
When I was working 60-70 hours a week, I didn’t want to work for someone who threatened us by e-mail several times about ‘special tweeps should work here’.
Mook ignores the basics
Both Tesla and SpaceX have many unhappy employees, with allegations against working conditions and Musk’s management style.
He is credited with thinking about iterative design and solving engineering problems. It is important to challenge old models that are no longer useful. But the fundamentals of leadership and organizational change are still important – and on these, Musk falls far short.
As his employees — real people who aren’t billionaires and have rent or mortgages to pay — struggle with what “hardcore” means and how that affects their lives outside of work, Musk is tweeting about it. Opinion on whether or not former US President Donald Trump will be allowed to return to the stage.
After Trump refused to respond, Musk tweeted the following.
The idea of any other CEO sending such a message on social media almost defies belief.
Some say this whole controversy is an ego trip for Musk — a theoretical belief in his attempts to get out of the deal. Even if there are enough workers to continue operations, the practice poses a significant risk to the business.
In the year Joel Roth, Twitter’s former head of integrity and safety, who resigned on November 10, wrote last week:
In the immediate aftermath of the purchase, a wave of racism and anti-Semitism erupted on Twitter. Cautious marketers, including those at General Mills, Audi and Pfizer, have frozen or halted ad spending on the platform, triggering a crisis within the company to protect precious ad revenue.
But even more powerful than the advertisers are Roth’s digital storefronts for Apple and Google:
Failure to comply with Apple’s and Google’s guidelines could put Twitter at risk of being kicked out of their app stores and make it harder for billions of users to access Twitter’s services.
Organizations are complex, interdependent systems, supported by a web of behavioral processes. Creating successful change requires balancing individual, work group, and organizational goals.
Although the little blue bird is still flying, human-powered systems that keep it aloft are under threat.
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